WASHINGTON – In front of a rapt audience, including the eldest son of Martin Luther King, Jr., Democratic and Republican senators took turns Tuesday reading the "Letter from Birmingham Jail,'' the slain civil rights leader's call to action more than 50 years ago.
At one point, Sen. Doug Jones, who joined a pilgrimage last year to honor King,teared up as he read excerpts of King’s letter.
“To say them out loud and to listen to other people say them especially on the floor of the United States Senate was incredibly powerful, incredibly moving,” Jones,D-Ala., said later as he stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. “I think everybody that was in that gallery, I know everybody on the floor was really touched by this. I think the words are as important today as they were in 1963.”
King wrote the letter in April from a cell in a Birmingham jail in 1963 after fellow clergymen criticized the tactics of the anti-segregation campaign. He urged them and others not to be silent while others fought for change.
King was assassinated April 4, 1968 in Memphis.
Jones was joined on the Senate floor by Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Lisa Murkowski, R-Ala. and Tim Kaine, D-Va. Reps. Karen Bass, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Terri Sewell, D-Ala., and Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, sat in the back of the chamber as the senators read excerpts of the letter.
Martin Luther King III, who sat in the Senate gallery during the reading, applauded the words, noting how relevant they were today.
“We’re still addressing some of the struggles," King said afterward. “We will continue to become a better nation. That’s what Dad was talking about. He was challenging us to our core to become the best of who we could become. I know we will get there at some point. We’ve got work to do obviously, but we’re going to get there.”
King and others, including Charles Steele, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by Rev. King, and Rev. Canon Leonard L. Hamlin, Sr., of the Washington National Cathedral, met with senators on the steps of the Capitol after the reading.
Cruz urged others to reread King’s letter. He said one thing that resonated with him was King’s call for the church to be more involved and to be “a thermostat and not merely a thermometer.”
It was important, said Cruz, that Republicans and Democrats read the letter.
“There are issues that divide us, but there are also issues that pull us powerfully together,” he said.